Archive for June, 2009

Jun 30 2009

Wien, as told by a non-Wiener

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This weekend, we were off traveling once again, this time, to Wien.  What, you’ve never heard of this city?  That’s because we generally refer to it as Vienna.  But, as we have learned, Anglophone-eyed German never gets old.  Although Jeremy A-D, our fellow traveler and resident linguist and German speaker, would rather point out all the grammatical delights of German instead.

Signs that we have been traveling too much in Europe and, furthermore, that it is summer: we could not bring ourselves to go into art museums or churches.  I mean, I was already sick of visiting churches before we ever arrived in Switzerland, but Seth finally agrees.  I think the art thing has more to do with the warm weather, although pre-nineteenth century European art (read:infinite numbers of Jesuses, Marys, royalty, and battles realistic but out of proportion in muted colors) has never greatly captivated my attention.

Still, there was plenty to do and see.  I think Vienna and I think elegance, classical music, coffeehouses, secular Jewish intellectuals, and Holocaust terrors.  I forgot to think about the Hapsburgs and their ginormous palace, along with accompanying Lipizzaner horses, but I remembered once we happened to stumble into the huge courtyard of said palace.  Under ominous clouds that threatened showers at any moment, but which only actually opened up just as we were heading out of town, we spent our three days doing quite a bit of walking through the broad and stolid streets, sight-seeing, and, of course, eating.

Music performances were advertised everywhere.  Instead of huge posters advertising movies or plays, we were bombarded by people trying to convince us to come to an orchestral concert and by huge signs at ticket booths for operas.  We opted for opera and went to see Mozart’s the Magic Flute at the Vienna State Opera.  It was a great production, and we were able to follow along with the English translation of the libretto.  That makes THREE operas that I have seen since May, which about doubles the number of operas I have seen in my lifetime.

Wiener Staatsoper
The Opera House

Although music was an important part of the entertainment scene, there was surprisingly little, particular as compared to, say, Leipzig, in the way of music sights.  Surprising considering this is the city of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Schubert, and Strauss, to name only a few.  We went to the Haus der Musik and had fun playing with their music-making machines when they did not have long lines, but we were actually a little underwhelmed by the explanations and the disconnect between the interactive, digital music-making and the floor on great Viennese composers.

On the Jewish side of things, we went to really lovely, song-filled Kabbalat Shabbat services at the liberal synagogue, which just happened to also be doing a special “Erev Pride.”  They were incredibly welcoming and friendly.  We did not go to the main Jewish museum, but we did go see the foundations of the medieval Jewish synagogue in Vienna, which were presented by a wonderful museum that also had a special exhibition on a reinterpretation of the Merchant of Venice done by a Yiddish theater in New York in the late 1940s.  Of course, we also wandered through the Jewish quarter and visited another important memorial to the victims of fascism, which failed to really accept Austrian blame and basically just announced that it was all the Gestapo’s fault that there were indeed victims of fascism in Austria.  And we spent a bit of time at the small but good Esperanto museum, which kind of counts as a Jewish experience, right?  We found out there is an Esperanto club in Renens VD!

Although we spent less time in coffee houses than I might have liked, we did do our share of eating.  We particularly enjoyed two excellent vegetarian restaurants and takeout from a Nepalese one (we tried to eat this in the Opera house, until an usher yelled at us…but what are you supposed to do about eating dinner when an opera goes from 7 pm to 10:30 pm?).  Also, I forced Seth and Jeremy to spend quite a bit of time wandering the Naschmarkt, a huge food market featuring not only vegetables, but small groceries, bakeries, and cafes as well.  If this existed in Lausanne, this could actually provide one-stop food shopping rather than the usual hopping among about five different stores and the Saturday market that we undertake.  Here, the two guys were able to find lactose-free baked Viennese goodies.

Vegan pastries

A weekend was not really enough for Vienna.  For example, we barely made it to any of the vast Hofburg palace, only going to the beautiful old library, let alone the Schloss Belvedere, a rival palace also in Vienna.  And, remember, we skipped all churches and art museums.  Then again, traveling is wearying.  Not sure whose crazy idea it was to go to Germany for a week and then so soon to Austria…and at the end of this week, to Paris.  Oh, mine.  Oops.  So, anyway, we’re happy to be back in Switzerland for a last few days before we take off to Paris and then the US for the rest of the summer.

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Jun 24 2009

Conference Reports

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I’m writing this on board the TGV train from Paris back to Lausanne after six days in Germany and two and a half days in Paris. I’m listening to Klezmer Attitude, a klezmer podcast in French, in preparation for my return to Paris in a few weeks for a klezmer workshop. Jackie blogged below about sight-seeing in Germany, so here’s a post on both conferences and my time in Paris.

In the spirit of the dozens of “slideware” (i.e. PowerPoint and its less evil cousins) presentations I’ve sat through, I’ll start by presenting an outline of my blog post.


[view the larger version]

The first conference, IEEE’s International Conference on Communications was huge. I’d guess more than 1,000 people, participating in more than a dozen different simultaneous sessions on a variety of apparently non-overlapping topics. The conference started with workshops on the Sunday that we arrived in Dresden, and the first talks I went to were on Monday. I was very lost, to say the least. Here are some of the words and phrases for which I needed to check Wikipedia:

  • Network Survivability
  • QoS in emerging wireless networks
  • Cognitive Networks
  • LTE (the Wikipedia entry for that one is pretty terrible)

Of course, one would expect jargon, but there’s specialized language and then there’s jargon. An example from the paper I presented, which was titled “Approximation Algorithms for Traffic Grooming in WDM Rings.” When explaining my work in casual conversations during the course of the conference, the question I heard most often was “grooming?” To make matters worse, it’s not a very familiar word for non-native English speakers (my attempted explanation about dogs and cats didn’t help). Turns out the term is sort of an arcane version of the term “packing,” as in the bin packing problem. Doesn’t help? Never mind.

Lost at the talks, I decided to join Jackie sight-seeing and eating delicious vegetarian food instead. Pictures are now on Flickr (which you can always find linked on the left).

Green Coffee Man

On the last day of talks at the conference, in the last session slot of the day, I gave my talk. I had its share of bullet points, but no slides anywhere near as bad as the joke one at the top of this post. The talk lasted the right amount of time, I felt prepared, and at the end of the talk there were five (!) questions all of which were interesting and showed the audience understood the point of the talk. Of course since I haven’t worked on this area since 2006 my answers were mostly, “that’s a very interesting question, I don’t have an answer, it would definitely be something to address in the future.”

And then I ran to catch my plane—Dresden to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Paris. There was nothing for me to eat in Dresden and I had a very short layover in Frankfurt, but I did have a decent bagel which I bought earlier that day in Dresden. (Good bagels in Germany? A topic for another post.)

The second conference, DD4D: Data Designed for Decisions took place at the OECD headquarters in Paris, organized by the International Institute for Information Design (IIID). It was a really neat conference, drawing people from a variety of different disciplines (follow that link to see line drawings of all the speakers), all  interested in the use and presentation of data and statistics. Billed as “A conference for intermediaries between data, knowledge and empowerment,” the first day of the conference featured really smart, pioneering people I had heard of, like Hans Rosling (watch his TED talk video if that doesn’t ring a bell):

…and really smart, pioneering people I hadn’t heard of, like Patricia Wright.

There were also shorter presentations grouped as panels. Really interesting stuff, most of it new to me. And then in the afternoon, I had a 20 minute slot to speak about CityRank.ch. How exactly they decided to allot me this slot I’m not sure, but I had prepared a lot and hoped not to disappoint. There were no bullet points in this talk whatsoever, just pretty images and some text to illustrate what I was saying. Plus I created a city ranking on the fly with audience input, which actually worked (although someone kept yelling out indicators that we can’t include because they don’t, which was fine—I agree with the point I assume he was trying to make and that was part of the point of my talk!)

Here’s a sketch by Alexandre Simon from Lausanne of me speaking:

I wasn’t exactly sure how long I’d been speaking so near the end I panicked and shortened my explanation of the actual algorithm underlying the website. Too bad.

Just like in Dresden, at the end of my talk, multiple people asked interesting questions. Hooray! Here’s a map of my talk, produced in real time by the very talented Regina Rowland:

Many talks had as a theme giving users a more active role in the creation of and understanding of data relevant to them. It’s something that the OECD is very interested in pursuing, too. CityRank is very much in this mold, so the conference turned out to be a great venue to talk about it and meet others working on it as well.

In addition to Alexandre, I met some other some cool people from Switzerland who are responsible for DataVisualization.ch (funny that I talked to them much more than other Americans).

After conference hours, I had good vegetarian food, checked out the apartment we’ll be subletting in July, and generally didn’t get too lost navigating Paris on my own and speaking French. I also caught up with David, one of my roommate’s from freshman year, which was fun.

On Flickr:

Germany June 09

Germany June 09

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Jun 18 2009

Music of Leipzig

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I have made it to Leipzig with Nora.  She has a flexible schedule at her conservatory in Leipzig, so she actually met me in Dresden.  We went together to see La Nozze di Figaro in the Opera House for the student rush price of 10 Euros for 3rd row, center-right seats!  It was really good, unlike the Rake’s Progress in Milan.  Only problem was that the supratitles were in German…

I actually discovered that what I had yet to see at the time of my last post was in much better shape than what I’d already seen.  The Altstadt, which was razed during WWII, has actually been beautifully restored.  There are many gleaming monumental buildlings, with some re-used blackened stones from their previous incarnations.  And we found a really good bagel cafe, which I visited no less than 3 times.  I never actually went into any of the museums in Dresden, as the piles of goodies that they supposedly have in store seemed less than enticing, but my overall evaluation of Dresden comes out above where it did on rainy Tuesday morning.

Seth is now in Paris, and both of his talks have been talked!  He tells me that they went well.  He knows this because people paid enough attention and were interested in enough that they asked him good questions and stopped to talk to him after his presentation.

I walked around the center of Leipzig today, which is entirely pedestrian, yet still the heart of the city.  It is very well restored as well, filled with shops and restaurants and historic buildings, all packed into a small area.  This was a cultural, particularly literary and musical center, and the likes of Goethe, Bach, Schumann, and F Mendelssohn created art there.  I took myself on the Lonely Planet suggested walking tour, ate bagels and cake with Nora, and then we went to see an organ concert in the church (Thomaskirche) for which Bach worked in his later years, played on the organ on which he tested out his music.  I happened to have arrived in Leipzig for its annual June Bach festival, which features several concerts a day for two weeks of Bach’s or his contemporaries’ works performed by people who come from all over, as well as Bach’s rotund, bewigged self glaring out at the crowds from banners hung all over the city.  Nora and I thought the organ at this particular concert sounded a little out of tune, but clear at least.  Most of the audience slept through the concert, and with a tradition of no clapping between songs at organ concerts in Germany, they faced no rude awakenings.

Things I have learned about Germans/Germany:

  • It is not Switzerland.  Not at all.  For one, the announcements on public transport are different, and, also, there are no Migros or Coops to be seen.  Oh, also, it is affordable.  That is a big difference.
  • Currywurst has far more to do with  wurst (sausage) than curry.  Too bad that the ubiquitous curry potential has been wasted on meat.
  • Germans make amazing cakes (real cakes, realer than American cakes, and not those silly French pastries and tartes) and they eat huge slices in the afternoon with coffee.  When I am in Germany, so do I.  If they do not eat cake, they consume large ice cream sundaes or strudels.  Strudels are a real food item, btw, not a myth.
  • There are bagels and hearty, dark breads available everywhere.
  • German strawberries are bigger and lighter than Swiss strawberries.
  • The German language never ceases to be hilarious when read with Anglophone eyes.  Fahrt: need I say more?
  • Nora’s roommates are German, so they logically invented a sophisticated shared cleaning system so that their apt theoretically would stay gleaming.  Only they don’t actually stick to it, and Nora does way more than her fair share of the housework.
  • Ticket machines are in the stations themselves, not on the platforms.  This learning comes courtesy trying to catch a train, about to catch said train, not able to find a ticket machine handy, then watching the train pull away without us.
  • Germans don’t drink anything at lunch, though beers go with dinner.  Also, they never drink tap water, even less so than in every other European country I’ve been to.
  • One needs to carry large amounts of pocket change.  I’m not sure why, but this is the only place I’ve ever been where I keep discovering my change pocket is empty, instead of overflowing as usual.
  • There is no gmail in Germany, only google mail.
  • Eis can mean either ice or ice cream.  What do you think I got when I ordered an eis kaffee?

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Jun 16 2009

Raining in Dresden

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You may remember that this week is Seth Talks at Conferences Week. Tomorrow is his big day at ICC09 in Dresden (talking communications research from a summer at Harvey Mudd) and Thursday he’s on in Paris at DD4D (talking about cityrank).

And I tagged along, at least to the Germany part. We spent the weekend in Berlin, meeting up with a couple of friends from Harvard, and have been in Dresden since Sunday night. Tomorrow night Seth flies to Paris, while I continue on to Leipzig. I’ll get Paris in July.

So, since Seth has been attempting to attend at least a few talks at ICC09, even though he basically has no clue what’s going on, I have been spending some amount of time trying to be a tourist on my own.  Which has reminded me that it is not much fun to sightsee alone.  It doesn’t help that it is muggy and rainy in Dresden.  Rather than forcing myself to see another church or museum, I am thus hanging around in the slightly run-down, space-age hotel waiting for Seth to give up on attempting to stay awake at today’s conference proceedings.

We have been eating a LOT here.  Not only has Germany became very vegetarian friendly, but food is not that expensive, and it is ACTUALLY GOOD.  Thai food, Indian food, vegetarian restaurant food, Mexican food (this was weird, I must admit, but that is what happens when you go with a group of people you’ve just met at a conference), cakes, soft drinks, gelatin-free gummy bears and lactose-free stroopwafels…

We got two days of nice weather in Berlin, and one day of very cold and rainy weather.  We visited the major sites along with eating, Jeremy sometimes accompanying (he is in Berlin for the summer doing linguistics research and practicing his German).  We went to Shabbat services at a Reform synagogue, where we met up with my one classmate from Yiddish last year, Anya, who grew up in East Berlin.  We marveled at the amazing new architectural specimens and the disruptions to normal growth that were so obviously experienced by this city in its recent past.  We watched sunset from the glass-domed roof of the German parliament.  I struggled to transform spoken Yiddish into something that sounded more like German, and Jeremy reprimanded me for my informal way of speaking, which apparently does not work in German.  We stayed in a wonderful B&B called Pension Elefant, in a gay neighborhood of West Berlin.  We bought a wooden bookstand for 10 Euros.

Lonely Planet compares Dresden to  Florence, but I don’t really get it.  Something to do with a shared Renaissance/Baroque history, but this place is not the city where Michelle and I spent a few days in February.  Despite guidebook promise of a sparkling, restored city, it is a bit run down/in the process of being reconstructed.  Not surprising considering it was in East Germany.  There are big, blackened monumental buildings near our hotel in the Old City (now the newer part, since it was flattened in WWII), which we’ll explore this afternoon, and shop-filled streets in the New City, which we walked through yesterday.  Said shop-filled streets included a dairy shop outfitted in handpainted Villeroy&Bach tiles, where I ate a cheese-and-bread sandwhich that had so much cheese on it I thought I’d have a heart attack by the end of it.  But I’m still here.

Seth just came back to the hotel.  Guess it didn’t take long for him to get bored.  More later, with pictures!

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Jun 08 2009

A disinterested post without judgement

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And now, a short post in which I self-righteously tell people to stop being self-righteous.

Did you know that disinterested doesn’t mean the same thing as uninterested? You did? That’s funny, because (via John Hodgman) disinterested meant uninterested first, which is to say, you and I, and all those other know-it-alls, should stop correcting people.

I’m collecting examples of this phenomenon, and also trying to figure out if there’s a term for it. Basically, it’s characterized by common things that people who consider themselves “in the know” might enjoy pointing out to you. But they’re not actually true. There’s an element of urban legend to them, and an element of grammar/spelling, but maybe that’s just the examples I can think of off the top of my head:

  • The term “jimmies” (for sprinkles) isn’t actually racist.
  • Judgment can be spelled with an ‘e’—judgement is in the dictionary!
  • Existent and fluctuant are real words in English. (Actually, that probably never comes up for other people but a few months ago I was working with a bilingual English/French speaker on a document in English and I tried to convince him that this was creeping Euro-English. Woops!)
  • …shoot, I thought I had some more examples.

Help me out here, folks.

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Jun 01 2009

Published by under Status updates

Today is a Swiss national holiday. Pentecost. Seriously? Also, I’ve finished the first year of my master’s!

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